WASHINGTON — About a half-dozen female senators have quietly started discussing possible changes to the way the Senate deals with sexual harassment — from greater transparency to better training.
One of their first frustrations: not much help or input from the men in the Senate.
“Women are being asked to talk about this, and women are being asked to forge a solution,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of about eight women who have been meeting privately to discuss the issue. “And we’re trying to figure out why men aren’t getting asked more about it, and why men are not more anxious to get a solution.”
Many of those in the informal Senate group have been active on the issue of sexual harassment and assault for years, just not as it relates to their congressional colleagues. McCaskill, for example, is a former sex-crimes prosecutor who pushed through a major overhaul of how the U.S. military handles sexual assault cases.
Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., convened the group, which started meeting amid a wave of sexual harassment allegations aimed at members of Congress. On Tuesday, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., announced he would resign from the House after several women accused him of aggressive and unwanted sexual advances. And the Senate Ethics Committee has started an investigation of allegations that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., forcibly kissed one woman and groped several others.
“All of us were just concerned that we saw there was a lack of transparency, that there wasn’t enough in terms of rules about training,” McCaskill said. “(And) there clearly has not been enough outreach to show support for those people that aren’t in positions of power that want to come forward and complain.”
McCaskill said women senators have not talked about Franken’s case or come to any specific conclusions yet. She said they hoped to build a consensus around a specific set of proposals that could be enacted before the end of the year.
The female senators aren’t the only ones trying to tackle sexual harassment in Congress. Last month, the Senate passed a resolution requiring sexual harassment training for senators and staff, a bill co-sponsored by a bevy of male senators and backed by Republican and Democratic leaders alike.
But other efforts are similarly being spearheaded by women.
In the House, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and several other lawmakers introduced a bipartisan bill last month that would overhaul the congressional complaint process and provide better protections for accusers. Most of the original co-sponsors on that bill are women, and there was only one Republican man at the news conference unveiling it.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he’s part of a working group set up at the urging of GOP Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee.
Blunt said one of the goals of the working group is to reform the secret process that lawmakers have used to settle numerous workplace harassment and discrimination claims. Congress has paid out more than $17 million since 1997 but it’s not clear how much of that money went to settle sexual harassment cases.
“(We’re) trying to figure out how people can have access to a process that allows them to have their concerns satisfied,” Blunt said, “and a settlement process that the people we work for are happy with and the people who work here will find” fosters a safe workplace.
Who else is in that group? Blunt listed four female senators and himself. He shrugged off questions about whether male lawmakers have been proactive enough in the debate, noting that he got involved in the working group as soon as the rash of allegations started flowing.
McCaskill isn't convinced.
“We want to work on it but this is not a problem created by women,” she said.